Story: Cooper, Theophilus
Compositor, lawyer, judge
This biography was written by R. C. J. Stone and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996
Theophilus Cooper was born on 15 November 1850 at Newington, Surrey, England, the son of Susannah Bugby and her husband, Theophilus Cooper, a mercantile clerk. In 1862 the Cooper family travelled to New Zealand on the Gertrude under the Albertland settlement scheme. Along with the other passengers they hoped to start a nonconformist community north of Auckland. Shortly after arriving at Auckland in February 1863, the Coopers went north to their allotment near Port Albert. Unrewarding attempts to farm their infertile land forced the family back to Auckland by 1865.
However, the short time spent by young Theo at Port Albert served him well. While there he had picked up his first job as a printer's devil for the Albertland Gazette. The experience helped him obtain a position in Auckland on the Daily Southern Cross as the reader-boy, the lad who held the copy for the proof-reader. Cooper soon rose to be chief compositor and the quickest typesetter on the staff.
In spite of a limited formal education which had ended in a London elementary school, Cooper had an ingrained Free Church belief in the merits of self-help as the means to realise his already high ambitions. In 1869 he shifted to the legal office of J. B. Russell to become a bookkeeper. Russell, discerning in the young employee a quick and incisive mind, in 1873 articled Cooper to himself. On 20 June 1878 Cooper was admitted a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand. Secure at last in his profession, he married Bessie Alexander on 16 October that year at the Pitt Street Wesleyan Church, Auckland.
While serving his articles Cooper had studied logic at night school and joined the town's debating society. Once qualified, he took over the common law work of Russell's practice, and performed so well in the courts that he was invited, during 1882, to be a full partner of the firm of Russell, Devore and Cooper. Albert Devore and Cooper left to set up their own practice a year later. However, Cooper never forgot what he owed Russell, who 'from the time I entered his office…took me by the hand, fostered and encouraged my desire to succeed in my profession'.
In the later nineteenth century Cooper became one of the most gifted counsel in New Zealand. By 1883 his flair for argument and grasp of the intricacies of case-law saw him figure in the first New Zealand Law Reports. A growing reputation led to his briefing in a number of landmark cases. In 1895 he was one of three counsel appearing for the New Zealand Midland Railway Company at the arbitration hearing after the government assumed the management of the company's project. His astuteness as counsel for the Bank of New Zealand during a parliamentary committee's inquiry into the bank's affairs in 1896 was widely publicised; his advice to bank officers that they could not be compelled, even under oath, to divulge information on private accounts was upheld in practice, much to the chagrin of hostile parliamentarians. Four years earlier he had made a high-profile appearance before the Court of Appeal to plead the case of the newly appointed, disputatious Judge W. B. Edwards, the terms of whose judgeship were opposed by the Ballance Liberal administration on constitutional and fiscal grounds.
Cooper's interests, nevertheless, went far beyond the mere practice of law. He was a member of the council of the New Zealand Law Society and a long-serving member of its law reporting team. Like many who were self-educated, he was conscious of the benefits of schooling and served on the Auckland Education Board from 1883 to 1901 and the board of the Auckland College and Grammar School from 1885 to 1901. He was a stalwart of the YMCA, and, from 1889 until 1901, a deputy inspector of lunatic asylums.
Such was Cooper's standing in the practice of common law that his appointment as a puisne judge in February 1901 was publicly regarded as no more than his overdue desert. For some years Cooper's daughter Ella acted as his associate, but 'in the more earthy [criminal and divorce] cases she left the Court'. His propensity for being drawn into significant cases continued. In 1904 he was asked to preside over the inquiry into the price of the state purchase of the Flaxbourne estate in Marlborough, one of the most important land law cases ever held in New Zealand. Yet Cooper's last years on the Bench were an anticlimax to an otherwise distinguished career. Although his fairness and uprightness were never questioned, his excessive slowness and caution once he grew older became the despair of those members of the Bar who appeared before him.
Theophilus Cooper was knighted in 1921, the year of his retirement from the Bench. He died at Eltham on 18 May 1925, survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons. Cooper's shortcomings during his later career were soon forgotten. The commemorative history of Albertland published shortly after his death acclaimed him as 'probably the most distinguished son' of the settlement. Certainly in the eyes of posterity Cooper is the very exemplar of the nineteenth-century ideal of the self-made man.